[This is an excerpt of a work-in-progress novella, ‘the Salamander’.]
“What is your novel about?” Brent asked.
Both men were fully aware of the polite disinterest which loaded the question and its response, as James was equally aware of Brent’s barely mild curiousity in his own question as James himself disdained another requisite to summarize his own work. For this, he answered merely, “It’s set in Prague.”
“Prague!” Brent marvelled, “Have you been?”
James explained that he had returned from eighteen months abroad just a year ago where his novel had been festering viral in him, yet he had only begun writing since his return. He carried a spiral-bound stenographer pad with him everywhere, etching out the words with obscenely meticulous long-hand. For this and several other reasons, he explained, those of which included he could not write without cleanliness around him, well-fed, showered, and having had sexual release of some sort in the course of his morning; the course of his novel had been laborious at best.
“You must have a deadline,” Brent asked with false worry, “A publisher, an editor, must want it soon after so much time.”
“I don’t worry myself about it,” James yawned, “I can always find another if they tire of my working process. I hate to be rushed.”
Brent was about to follow the natural course of inquiry toward the managing of James’s income, but felt it rude to ask. Noticing this, James easily provided him his answer.
“I don’t have to worry about the money, you know. I have as much time as I want.”
James told him the name of his family, whom he knew Brent, with his historical bent, would recognize. Indeed, Brent’s eyebrows raised and he repeated the name to which James nodded with pride. Brent had read mentions of the family in the footnotes of war texts; he knew the surname to be synonymous with some of the most vulturous war profiteers recorded. James looked pleased as Brent tried to control his expression of disgust at the practice.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I,” Brent cleared his throat, “I come from a miltary family.”
“So you find my lineage disgraceful,” James taunted.
Brent tried to reverse the direction of his statement, but to little success. James was unfettered and let Brent tactfully change the subject.
“How was Prague?” Brent asked, self-consciously thickening his voice.
“Yes, Prague, how was your research?”
“Prague is filthy, but it is with the filth of centuries, not carelessness,” James described, “The history it wears darkens the boots and the minds of its inhabitants. European women, of course, wear it best. And the cathedrals. I had views of both from my flat. At night, the pub at the base of the cathedral would open to let the ex-pats flow in like cheap piss beer. It’s wonderful. Do you travel?”
“At times. It’s harder now with the children than it was at the beginning with Kaitlyn and I.”
“They will do that, I hear.”
“We were able to take them to New York this spring. I went to a Holocaust symposium for work and Kaitlyn took them to the Met. It’s good for children to get out in the world, I think.”
“Certainly,” James agreed, stretching his long shoulders and letting the conversation fade as Brent’s eyes scanned the waterfront for his wife and Adrienne.
Thoughts of cities arose between them.
To Brent, the city was to man as the temple to a god. He marveled at the strong hands, the sense of unity, and the idealism of the cosmopolitan. He gazed upward to the steel beams; the windows reflecting skies dotted with aircraft, the graces of human labor and was comforted. In cities, he saw the strength which was to him the greatest evidence of his own natural state of virility. He did not see the adornments of the cathedral, the moss writhing between the bricks, or the delicacy of the glasswork. He saw the stone arches wrought with the perfect balance of tension, the careful construction that spoke of potent ancestry and proud history. Brent saw the current work of historical scholars as arrogantly dissecting his heroes like grade school frogs, pinning them back in their posthumous vulnerability to pull apart their insides with reckless disregard. Brent never realized that his deep admiration of history was never to the great men themselves, but simply to his own ideas of them unmarred by human truth. For this, Brent protected them with a fatherly blindness. Brent left the history books lining the shelves of his home largely unopened, as though pulling back the covers were akin to grave robbery.
At the mention of New York, James turned an inward grimace. He felt nothing but contempt for the violent vertitude of the high rise buildings, for they gave only the tromp loie illusion of conquering the sky. They were to him nothing but juvenile aggression. Their grand scale would not prevent them from falling, from being eventually reduced to unsightly and inconvenient rubble, deny it as they may with illusions of strength. He had only slightly greater sympathy for the great cathedrals of Paris and Prague, for in their beauty, they appealed to his own skeptical sensibilities. James believed in nothing but the value of the aesthetic, as he thought man’s creation of temporal elegance to be his greatest condition to rise him above his human mess fleetingly before his inevitable falling. To James, a building should be nothing but elegant if it is to exist at all.
“Yes, Prague,” he murmered, “Go there if you get the chance.”